Conservationist of the month: Dr Simon J. Pierce, MMF

September 24, 2021

This month, I’m delighted to share some insights from my fabulous friend Dr. Simon J. Pierce: co-founder of the Marine Megafauna Foundation (MMF), king of puns and whale shark enthusiast extraordinaire. Enjoy!

What does your charity do (in a nutshell)?

We do targeted research, conservation, and education work to ensure the recovery of threatened marine species, particularly sharks, rays, and sea turtles.

Why do you care about the ocean?

The ocean has been a life-long fascination for me. I was always interested in animals, and my dad taking me out fishing exposed me to marine life for the first time., which means I spent a lot of time in the library after that, learning as much as I could, with a particular focus on sharks. I did some tropical snorkelling and a ‘discover scuba’ dive on a family holiday. After that I was completely hooked! I ended up studying rays for my postgraduate work, and fell in love with whale sharks after swimming with them for the first time.

What inspired you to work in the conservation sector?

I grew up reading about conservation scientists in New Zealand, where I’m from, and the work they were doing to protect the country’s most endangered species. That really resonated with me as a ‘life mission’, and still does; I’ve ended up focusing mostly on the developing countries that have less resources to work with.

What’s a typical day like for you?

Well, prior to 2020 my typical day was a lot more brag-worthy. Under normal circumstances I do a lot of travelling to help build capacity in the developing world, so I spend time in the field and the office doing training or generally helping where I can. At the moment, I’m spending most of my time on the computer – we’ve just released a book on whale sharks, so I’m using that as an excuse to talk about them a lot.

How did you get into conservation?

I always aimed to work in conservation, and my friend and labmate Andrea Marshall decided to set up a small research group while the two of us were working in Mozambique. That’s grown up into the Marine Megafauna Foundation now, with quite a few people involved, so I spend my time both doing research and conservation work myself, and also helping to ensure the whole team succeeds.

What’s your favourite marine creature and why?

I’ve got to say whale sharks. Otherwise it’d be awkward. And they still are 🙂

What’s the weirdest or most surprising fact you can share about the ocean?

I don’t know if it’s surprisingly to others or not, but I often remind myself that the open ocean is the largest habitat on the planet.

Do you think communications is an important part of your conservation work?

Yes. Conservation is all about people. I really enjoy writing and photography, and sharing information (and groan-inducing jokes) about the marine species we love. Lots of people love the ocean, but don’t have the opportunity to spend as much time on or underwater as they’d like. Communications is a vital part of keeping people engaged with the animals, habitats and issues that they don’t necessarily get to see day-to-day.

What communications challenges do you face at your organisation?

Social media is one of the primary communication tools these days, of course, and we’re lucky to have an excellent person working on that; but it’s a hard area to fund in general. There’s also the issue that we’re a US-registered organisation, and that’s where a lot of our funding comes from, but for conservation purposes we also need to maintain a targeted focus on the communities we work with. With a small team, that sometimes means that they’re so busy doing excellent work that it’s tough to find the time to tell our followers about it! I’m trying to help by creating Ocean Giants, our new quarterly magazine, where we can feature specific projects and what they’re up to.

What are your hopes for the future of the ocean?

It’s amazing to see how life can recover in large protected areas. With more of those, a lot of other challenges – overfishing, ecosystem resilience, climate change – can be improved too.

What’s the one thing you wish people knew about protecting the ocean?

It’s easy to get overwhelmed with information about different problems in the world, and that makes it really easy for people to get burnt-out and switch off. I think it’s good to focus on a specific issue, place, or species you want to help, and focus on what you *can* do.

What tips do you have for someone who wants to work in the conservation sector?

Most people get jobs based on their experience, which has encouraged a lot of volunteer work. That might be unavoidable to some extent, as there isn’t a lot of money in the field unfortunately, but don’t think it means you have to do some awesome-sounding expensive trip overseas. Look for local opportunities with charities, universities, and community groups – even local and national government – that you can fit in around your life.

Anything you’d like to add?

Thanks for inviting me to contribute, and thanks to anyone reading!

Check out more from Dr Simon J. Piece here

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